PACIFIC COUNTY, Wash. — As parts of the country rethink criminal justice, a small county in Washington state is providing a model on how to better serve communities.

Pacific County, on Washington’s southwest coast, is one of the Stepping Up Initiative’s first “innovator counties.” The aim of the initiative is to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jail.

Rosanne McPhail, grant coordinator for the Pacific County justice mental health collaboration program, said the county has ensured people are linked up with behavioral health specialists once they leave jail.

“Pretty primary to us at the beginning was the need for someone to be in the jail that would act as that connector,” McPhail explained. “And we did implement a jail liaison position when we went into implementation phase.”

McPhail recounted Pacific County joined the initiative in 2015 because they were seeing a high number of people with mental illnesses in their jail and a high rate of recidivism. She noted collecting and sharing data is a key ingredient to the success of their program.

Pat Matlock, chief criminal deputy for the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office, said he has seen a big change since the Stepping Up Initiative was implemented.

Pacific County is small, with a population of about 20,000 and a jail that holds 50, and Matlock pointed out they use every resource they have to get by. He added there are procedures in place to mark people’s progress once they come in contact with the criminal-justice system.

“We’ve seen a sharp decrease in the recidivism of people who are high utilizers in our jail facility because we have those warm handoffs when they leave,” Matlock stated. “While they’re in our facility, they meet with the liaison, they get hooked up with the services they need to help them succeed outside of our facility.”

McPhail believes counties of all sizes can benefit from the Stepping Up Initiative, which has facilitated conversations across the country.

“We’ve benefited from connecting with other counties and learned what other counties are doing in certain areas and then be able to adapt it to what will work in our area because of our size,” McPhail remarked.

There are seven counties in the original cohort of the initiative, including counties in California, Kansas and Florida.

Photo Credit: Pacific County is among the smallest in Washington.